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What Is It to Win a Soul?

Written by: Spurgeon, C.H.    Posted on: 04/01/2003

Category: Sermons

Source: CCN


For more than a century, Charles Haddon Spurgeon's sermons have been consistently recognized, and their usefulness and impact have continued to the present day, even in the outdated English of the author's own day. 

Why then should expositions already so successful and of such stature and proven usefulness require adaptation, revision, rewrite or even editing? The answer is obvious.  To increase its usefulness to today's reader, the language in which it was originally written needs updating.

Though his sermons have served other generations well, just as they came from the pen of the author in the nineteenth century, they still could be lost to present and future generations, simply because, to them, the language is neither readily nor fully understandable.

My goal, however, has not been to reduce the original writing to the vernacular of our day.  It is designed primarily for you who desire to read and study comfortably and at ease in the language of our time.  Only obviously archaic terminology and passages obscured by expressions not totally familiar in our day have been revised.  However, neither Spurgeon's meaning nor intent have been tampered with.                                                   Tony Capoccia

All Scripture references are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (C) 1978 by the New York Bible Society, used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. 

                          What Is It to Win a Soul?                                     by                     Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Soul-winning is the chief business of the Christian minister; indeed, it should be the main pursuit of every true believer.  We each should say with Simon Peter, "I'm going fishing," and with Paul our aim should be, "That I may somehow save some of them." 

What is it to win a soul?  This may be answered by describing what it is not.  We do not regard it to be soul-winning to steal members out of churches already established and train them to follow our peculiar customs: we aim rather at bringing souls to Christ than at making converts to our church.  There are sheep-stealers out there, concerning whom I will say nothing except that they are not "brethren," or, at least, they do not act in a brotherly fashion.  To their own Master they must stand or fall.  We count it utterly contemptible to build up our own house with the ruins of our neighbor's home; I hope we all sympathize with the big-hearted spirit of Dr. Chalmers, who, when it was said that such and such an effort would not be beneficial to the special interests of the Free Church of Scotland although it might promote the general Christianity of the land, said, "What is the Free Church compared with the Christian good of the people of Scotland?" What, indeed, is any church or what are all the churches put together, as mere organizations, if they stand in conflict with the moral and spiritual advantage of the nation, or if they impede the kingdom of Christ?  It is because God blesses men through the churches that we desire to see them prosper, and not merely for the sake of the churches themselves.  There is such a thing as selfishness in our eagerness for the exalting of our own party; and from this evil spirit may grace deliver us!

In the next place, we do not consider soul-winning to be accomplished by hurriedly inscribing more names on our church roll in order to show greater numbers at the end of the year.  This is easily done, and there are brethren who take great pains, not to say arts, to effect it; but if it be regarded as the beginning and end of a minister's efforts, the result will be deplorable.  Let us by all means bring true converts into the church, for it is a part of our work to teach them to obey everything that Christ has commanded them; but still, this is to be done to disciples and not to mere professors; and if we aren't careful, we may do more harm than good at this point. 

To introduce unconverted persons to the church is to weaken and degrade it; and therefore an apparent gain may be a real loss.  I am not one of those who "bad mouth" statistics, nor do I consider that they are evil; for they do a lot of good if they are accurate and if men use them rightly.  It is a good thing for people to see the lostness of our nation through statistics that show dwindling numbers, that they may be driven on their knees before the Lord to seek the salvation of souls; and, on the other hand, it is by not an evil thing for workers to be encouraged by having some accounting of numbers set before them.  I would be very sorry if the practice of adding up, and deducting, and giving in the net result were to be abandoned, for it must be right to know our numerical condition.  It has been noticed that those who object to the process are often brethren whose unsatisfactory reports should somewhat humiliate them: this is not always so, but it is suspiciously frequent.  I heard of the report of a church the other day in which the minister, who was well known to have reduced his congregation to nothing, cleverly wrote, "Our church is looking up."  When he was questioned with regard to this statement, he replied, "Everybody knows that the church is on its back, and it cannot do anything else but look up."

Do not consider that soul-winning is or can be secured by the multiplication of baptisms and the swelling of the size of your church.  What do these reports from the battlefield mean?  "Last night fourteen souls were under conviction, fifteen were saved, and eight rededicated their lives."  I am weary of this public bragging, this counting of unhatched chickens, this exhibition of doubtful treasures.  Lay aside such numberings of the people, such idle pretense of certifying in half a minute that which will need the testing of a lifetime.  Hope for the best, but in your highest excitements be reasonable.  Inquiry rooms [rooms provided after the preaching service for those who would "inquire" about the message or other facets of Christianity  Today they have mostly been replaced by one of man's traditions--the "Altar Call"], in the whole all very good; but if they lead to idle boastings, then they will grieve the Holy Spirit and work abounding evil.

Nor is it soul-winning merely to create excitement.  Excitement will accompany every great movement.  We might rightly question whether the movement was earnest and powerful if it was as serene as a quiet reading of the Bible.  You can't very well blast great rocks without the sound of explosions, nor fight a battle and keep everybody as quiet as a mouse.  Friction and action are the natural result of force in motion.  So, when the Spirit of God is present and men's minds are stirred, there must and will be certain visible signs of movement, although these must never be confounded with the movement itself.

Do not aim at sensation and "effect."  Flowing tears and streaming eyes, sobs and outcries, crowded "after the service" meetings and all kinds of confusion may occur and may even be accepted as being a genuine moving of the Spirit; but please do not try to make it happen.

It often happens that the converts that are born in excitement die when the excitement is over.  They are like certain insects which are the product of an exceedingly warm day, and die when the sun goes down.  Certain converts are like salamanders that die when the temperature reaches a reasonable level.

I do not delight in religion which needs or creates a wild emotional outcry.  Give me the godliness which flourishes upon Calvary rather than upon a volcano.  The utmost zeal for Christ is consistent with common sense and reason: raving, ranting, and fanaticism are products of another zeal which is not according to knowledge.  We should prepare men for the chamber of communion and not for the padded room at an insane asylum.

What is the real winning of a soul for God?  What are the processes by which a soul is led to God and to salvation?  I take it that one of its main facets consists in instructing a man that he may know the truth of God.  Instruction in the gospel is the beginning of all real work upon men's minds.  "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."  Teaching begins the work and continues with it to the very end of the new Christian's life.

The gospel, according to Isaiah, is, "Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live."  It is ours, then, to give men something worth their hearing; in fact, to instruct them.  We are sent to evangelize or to preach the gospel to every creature; and that is not done unless we teach them the great truths of God's revealed Word.  The gospel is good news.  To listen to some preachers you would imagine that the gospel was like "smelling salts" to make them wake up.  It is nothing of the kind; it is news, there is information in it, there is instruction in it concerning matters which men need to know and statements in it calculated to bless those who hear it.  It is not a magical incantation or a charm whose force consists in a collection of sounds; it is a revelation of facts and truths which require knowledge and belief. 

The gospel is a reasonable system, and it appeals to men's understanding; it is a matter for thought and consideration, and it appeals to the conscience and to the power of reflection.  So, if we don't teach men something, we can shout all day, "Believe! Believe! Believe!" but what are they to believe?  Each exhortation requires a corresponding instruction, or it will mean nothing. "Escape!"  From what?  This requires for its answer the doctrine of the punishment of sin.  "Fly!"  But where?  Then you must preach Christ and His wounds; yes, and the clear doctrine of atonement by sacrifice on the cross.  "Repent!"  Of what?  Here you must answer such questions as, What is sin?  What is the evil of sin?  What are the consequences of sin?  "Be converted!"  But what is it to be converted?  By what power can we be converted?  From what? To what?  The field of instruction is wide if men are to be made to know the truth which saves.  "It is not good to have zeal without knowledge," and it is ours as the Lord's instruments to enable men to know the truth that they may believe it and feel its power.  We are not to try and save men in the dark, but in the power of the Holy Spirit we are to seek to turn them from darkness to light.

And, don't believe, dear friends, that when you go into revival meetings or special evangelistic services, you are to leave out the doctrines of the gospel, for you ought then to proclaim the doctrines of grace rather more than less.  Teach gospel doctrines clearly, affectionately, simply, and plainly, and especially those truths which have a present and practical bearing upon man's condition and God's grace.

Second, to win a soul it is necessary not only to instruct our hearer and make him to know the truth, but to impress him so that he may feel it.  A ministry which always appeals to the understanding and leaves the emotions untouched would certainly be a limping ministry.  "Like a lame man's legs," says Solomon; and the unequal legs of some ministries cripple them.  We have seen such a ministry limping about with a long doctrinal leg but a very short emotional leg.  It is a horrible thing for a man to be so doctrinal that he can speak coolly of the doom of the wicked, so that, if he does not actually praise God for it, it costs him no anguish of heart to think of the ruin of millions of our race.  This is horrible!

I hate to hear the terrors of the Lord proclaimed by men whose hard expression, harsh tones, and unfeeling spirit betray a very dry doctrine: all the milk of human kindness is dried out of them.  Having no feeling himself, such a preacher creates none, and the people sit and listen while he keeps to dry, lifeless statements, until they come to value him for being "sound," and they themselves come to be sound, too: and I need not add, sound asleep also, or what life they have is spent in sniffing out heresy and criticizing men who earnestly preach the gospel.  May we never be baptized into this spirit!

A sinner has a heart as well as a head; a sinner has emotions as well as thoughts, and we must appeal to both.  A sinner will never be converted until his emotions are stirred.  Unless he feels sorrow for sin and unless he has some measure of joy in the reception of the Word, you cannot have much hope for him.  The Truth must soak into the soul and dye it with its own color.  The Word must be like a strong wind sweeping through the whole heart and swaying the whole man, even as a field of ripening corn waves in the summer breeze.  Christianity without emotion is Christianity without life.

But, still, we must be careful how these emotions are caused.  Do not play upon the mind by exciting feelings which are not spiritual.  Some preachers are very fond of introducing funerals and dying children into their discourses, and they make the people weep through sheer natural affection.  This may lead up to something better, but in itself what is its value?  What is the good of opening up a mother's griefs or a widow's sorrows?  I do not believe that our merciful Lord has sent us to make men weep over their departed relatives by digging anew their graves and rehearsing past scenes of bereavement and woe.

If our hearers will weep over their sins, and after Jesus, let their tears flow in rivers; but if the object of their sorrow is merely natural and not at all spiritual, what good is done by making them weep?  There might be some virtue in making people joyful, for there is enough sorrow in the world, and the more we can promote cheerfulness, the better; but what is the use of creating needless misery?  What right have you to go through the world pricking everybody with your surgeon's knife just to show your skill in surgery?  A true physician only makes incisions in order to effect cures, and a wise minister only excites painful emotions in men's minds with the distinct object of blessing their souls.

I have already insisted on instruction and impression as being most needful to soul-winning; but these are not all they are, indeed, only means to the desired end.  A far greater work must be done before a man is saved.  A wonder of divine grace must be acted upon the soul, far transcending anything which can be accomplished by the power of man.  Of all whom we would eagerly win for Jesus it is true, "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."  The Holy Spirit must work a new birth in the objects of our love, or they never can become possessors of eternal happiness.  They must be quickened into a new life, and they must become new creatures in Christ Jesus.  The same energy which accomplishes resurrection and creation must put forth all its power upon them; nothing short of this will work.

Regeneration, or the new birth, works a change in the whole nature of man, and, so far as we can judge, its essence lies in the implanting and the creation of a new principle within the man.  The Holy Spirit creates in us a new, heavenly, and immortal nature, which is known in Scripture as "the spirit" by way of distinction from the soul.  Our theory of regeneration is that man in his fallen nature consists only of body and soul and that when he is regenerated, there is created in him a new and higher nature--"the spirit"--which is a spark from the everlasting fire of God's life and love; this falls into the heart and lives there and makes its receiver a partaker of the divine nature.  From that time forward, the man consists of three parts, body, soul, and spirit, and the spirit is the reigning power of the three.

Since this God bestowed spiritual life in men is a mystery, we will speak to a more practical effect if we dwell upon the signs following and accompanying it, for these are the things we must aim at.  First, regeneration will be shown in conviction of sin.  This we believe to be an indispensable mark of the Spirit's work; the new life as it enters the heart causes intense inward pain as one of its first effects.  Though nowadays we hear of persons being brought into a certainty of their salvation without ever having lamented their condemnation for their sins, we are very dubious as to the value of such salvations.  This style of things is not according to the truth.  God never clothes men until He has first stripped them, nor does He arouse them by the gospel until they are first slain by the law of God.  When you meet with persons in whom there is no trace of conviction of sin, you may be quite sure that they have not been convicted by the Holy Spirit, for "When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment." 

It is equally certain that true conversion may be known by the exhibition of a simple faith in Jesus Christ.  You don't need me to tell you that, for you yourselves are fully convinced of it.  The production of faith is the very center of the target at which you aim.  The proof to you that you have won the man's soul for Jesus is never before you until he has rejected himself and his own merits and has trusted only in the work of Christ.  Great care must be taken that this faith is exercised on Christ for a complete salvation and not for a part of it.  Numbers of persons think that the Lord Jesus is available for the pardon of past sin, but they cannot trust Him for their preservation in the future.  They trust Him for past years but not for years to come; whereas no such a subdivision of salvation is ever spoken of in Scripture as the work of Christ.  Either He bore all our sins or none; and He either saves us once for all or not at all.  His death can never be repeated, and it must have made full payment for the future sin of believers, or they are lost, since no further atonement can be supposed and future sin is certain to be committed.  Blessed be His name, "Through Him everyone who believes is justified from everything."  Salvation by grace is eternal salvation.

Together with undivided faith in Jesus Christ there must also be wholehearted repentance of sin.  Repentance is an old-fashioned word not much used by modern revivalists.  "Oh!" said a minister to me, one day, "It only means a change of mind."  This was thought to be a profound observation.  "Only a change of mind"; but what a change!  A change of mind with regard to everything! instead of saying, "It is only a change of mind," it seems to me more truthful to say it is a great and deep change--even a change of the mind itself.  But whatever the literal Greek word may mean, repentance is no small thing.  You will not find a better definition of it than the one given in the children's hymn:

                        Repentance is to leave                           The sins we loved before;                         And show that we in earnest grieve,                           By doing so no more.

Another proof of the conquest of a soul for Christ will be found in a real change of life.  If the man does not live differently from what he did before, both at home and in society, his repentance needs to be repented of and his conversion is a fiction.  Not only action and language but spirit and attitude must be changed.  "But," says someone, "grace is often grafted on a wild tree."  I know it is; but what is the fruit of the grafting?  The fruit will be like the graft, and not after the nature of the original stem.  "But," says another, "I have an awful temper, and all of a sudden it overcomes me.  My anger is soon over, and I feel very ashamed.  Though I cannot control myself, I am quite sure I am a Christian."  Not so fast, my friend, or I may answer that I am just as sure the other way. 

What is the use of your soon cooling down if in two or three moments you scald everyone around you?  If a man stabs me in a fury, it will not heal my wound to see him grieving over his madness.  Quick temper must be conquered and the whole man must be renewed or conversion will be questionable.  We are not to hold up a modified holiness before our people, and say, "You will be all right if you reach that standard."  The Scripture says, "He who does what is sinful is of the devil."

There must be a harmony between the life and the profession.  A Christian professes to renounce sin; and if he does not do so, he is an impostor.  A drunken man came up to Rowland Hill, one day, and said, "I am one of your converts, Mr. Hill."  "I believe you are," replied that shrewd and sensible preacher; "but you are not a convert of the Lord's, or you would not be drunk."  To this practical test we must bring all our work.

In our converts we must also see true prayer, which is the vital breath of godliness.  If there is no prayer, you may be quite sure the soul is dead.  We are not to urge men to pray as though it were the great gospel duty and the one prescribed way of salvation; for our chief message is, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ."  It is easy to put prayer into its wrong place and make it out to be a kind of work by which men are to live; but this you will, I trust, most carefully avoid.  Faith is the great gospel grace; but still we cannot forget that true faith always prays, and when a man professes faith in the Lord Jesus and yet does not cry to the Lord daily, we dare not believe in his faith or his conversion.

There must also be a willingness to obey the Lord in all His commandments.  It is a shameful thing for a man to profess discipleship and yet refuse to learn his Lord's will on certain points, or even dare to decline obedience when that will is known.  How can a man be a disciple of Christ when he lives in open disobedience to Him?

If the professed convert distinctly and deliberately declares that he knows his Lord's will but does not plan to obey it, you are not to pamper his presumption, but it is your duty to assure him that he is not saved.  Has not the Lord said, "Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple?"  Mistakes as to what the Lord's will may be are to be tenderly corrected, but anything like willful disobedience is fatal; to tolerate it would be treason to Him that sent us.  Jesus must be received as King as well as Priest; and where there is any hesitancy about this, the foundation of godliness is not yet laid.

                        Faith must obey her Maker's will                           As well as trust His grace;                         A pardoning God is jealous still                           For His own holiness.

Thus, you see, my brethren, the signs which prove that a soul is won are by no means inconsequential, and the work to be done before those signs can exist is not to be lightly spoken of.  A soul-winner can do nothing without God.  He must throw himself before the Invisible God or be a laughing-stock to the devil, who regards with utter contempt all who think to subdue human nature with mere words and arguments.  To all who hope to succeed in such a labor by their own strength, we would address the words of the Lord to Job, "Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?  Can you make a pet of him like a bird or put him on a leash for your girls?  If you lay a hand on him, you will remember the struggle and never do it again!  Any hope of subduing him is false; the mere sight of him is overpowering."  Dependence on God is our strength and our joy: in that dependence let us go out and seek to win souls for Him.

Transcribed and edited by Tony Capoccia of

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